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Why do some leaders struggle with the idea of self-organisation?

julian burton


I was at an ODNE conversation this Monday and one subject that came up was about what self-organising meant. We reflected that it can be hard to get a grip on what this word means, let alone work out how to advise leaders how they can create its enabling conditions. I have an insatiable curiosity, so consulted the oracle; Wikipedia!

Self-organisation is a process where some form of overall order or coordination arises out of the local interactions between smaller component parts of an initially disordered system. The process of self-organisation can be spontaneous, and it is not necessarily controlled by any auxiliary agent outside of the system.

And the dictionary; the spontaneous appearance of orderly structure and coherent pattern.

So to apply these definitions to the conversation itself that we had that day, self-organisation meant that the relationships and conversations in that very room were organise themselves without any one person being in control, within reason. Within the simplest of liberating structures, the group decides what to do, when to do it and how, without any external direction. No one person dominates the group by closing down others' honest opinions. I don't think we had any conflict that day, but if there were any, I would hope that we would have courageously surfaced it as a source of diversity and not avoided it. And that is the really hard stuff.

Together, without planning, we enabled the sort of spontaneous and improvised conversation in which new, shared meaning was being created and relationships nurtured; i.e. organised coherently. I suggest that the new order, or gestalt that we created felt energising and motivating. We had co-created new, more coherent and satisfying patterns of experience, relationship and knowledge, all in the space of 3 hours! 

So the learning for me is that, when I struggle to understand a highly abstract term such as self-organisation, I need to drop down into my felt experience and sense what are the qualities of conversation I'm living in. If I feel more alive and connected and inspired in that moment, its probably because others are feeling the same. And in the midst of our self-organising, we are typically not aware that we are, our attention being on the content of the conversation.

If you were at the same meeting as me, what did you experience? How does my description land with you? How could we learn together more about self-organisation in the next meeting?

BTW, this painting was first shown at the Art of Complexity exhibition at the LSE in 2003! Thanks Eve for hosting it x